Har Mar Superstar, Erin McKeown, Grant Lee Phillips and Dead By Sunrise

There's a distinct chill in the air, the leaves are turning and beginning to carpet the yard and the drizzle in the air is threatening to crystallize and dust our lawns with a touch of white. That can only mean one thing: I'm hunkered in the Bunker with

Oct 15, 2009 at 2:06 pm

There’s a distinct chill in the air, the leaves are turning and beginning to carpet the yard and the drizzle in the air is threatening to crystallize and dust our lawns with a touch of white. That can only mean one thing: I’m hunkered in the Bunker with a cup of coffee and my Mackinac Island sweatshirt to keep me warm and a stack of new CDs to preview and review for the coming week.

Of course, that’s what I’d be doing if it was 104 degrees and I was sitting here in my underwear, sweating balls and draining an endless parade of condensation-drenched Shiners. Either way, there’s music to talk about, so let’s get started.

When Sean Tillman comes back from a five year hiatus, he doesn’t fool around. He’s got a movie role in Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, and was in last year’s Lovely, Still, he’s developing scripts for film and television and he’s dusted off his R&B alter ego Har Mar Superstar for Dark Touches, his first new HMS album since 2004’s acclaimed The Handler. Of course, “hiatus” is a bit misleading: Tillman recorded and toured under his other nom du rock, Sean Na Na, and with his band Neon Neon, which nabbed a nomination for last year’s Mercury Music Prize. The guy’s busier when he’s taking time off.

Tillman conceived HMS a decade ago when he recognized the appeal of taking the R. Kelly R&B archetype to a ridiculously hypersexual extreme. In Tillman’s incredibly talented hands, Har Mar Superstar is a parody of an Adam Samberg bit on Saturday Night Live, a Hip Hop crooner whose rhymes are the most outrageous, whose beats are the dopest and whose skills with the mic and between the sheets have no equal.

Who but Har Mar Superstar could bust a completely plausible jam about “Game Night” with shout outs to everything from Cranium to Monopoly to Taboo? And then there’s the Justin-tributes-Michael Pop of “I Got Next,” which illuminates Tillman’s flirting tactic of getting women to sign a contract that he gets right of first refusal if she dumps her current boyfriend, the dirty Funk of the brilliantly stupid “Gangsters Want to Cuddle Me,” and the single entendre sex-and-candy roll call of “Almond Joy.”

Dark Touches is simply further proof of Sean Tillman’s astonishingly broad-yet-laser-guided sense of humor and flawless musical bag of tricks. If Justin Timberlake ever applied the kind of wit he exhibits as SNL host to his musical expression, he might give Har Mar Superstar a run for his money, but since that’s as likely as a Kanye West humanitarian award, Har Mar Superstar’s status as the premier Hip Hop stand up is safe.

In much the same way that Rufus Wainwright has transcended genres with his catalog, so too has Erin McKeown pushed her coffeehouse Folk roots into new, unexpected and wildly diverse directions. McKeown’s early stripped back acoustic foundation led to the joyous Pop of 2003’s Grand and the Rock-inflected sounds of 2005’s We Will Become Like Birds that was counterpointed by the Jazz standards of Sing You Sinners. With her latest album, Hundreds of Lions, McKeown offers an interesting hybrid of her musical journey to date, as she juxtaposes elements from the various genres she has explored and combines them into a fascinating and oddly cohesive whole.

Take “You, Sailor,” for instance; it begins as a simple acoustic Folk ode to lost love, but quickly weaves in an Ambient/Electronic undercurrent and ultimately ambles to a chamber Pop conclusion. “The Foxes” is a spritely and yet somewhat ominous jaunt that sounds like a collaboration between Ingrid Michaelson and Brian Eno while “(Put the Fun Back in) the Funeral” surrounds its dark message (“I hear the dirt fall on the coffin roof/ I can’t breathe in this box I can’t breathe”) with a string quartet plucking out a melodic dirge and Tropicalia as envisioned by John Cale and “The Lions” imagines a gypsy carnival scored by Garrison Starr and Tom Waits.

The unifying elements in Hundreds of Lions are McKeown and her incredible longtime producer Sam Kassirer, who have knitted together an amazing sonic pastiche and frankensteined a unique hybrid genre out of an unlikely marriage of styles. But it is clearly McKeown’s graceful, forceful and completely confident presentation that is the gravitational body at the center of Hundreds of Lions’ musical galaxy.

Considering the estimable catalog that Grant Lee Phillips has amassed with his breakthrough trio Grant Lee Buffalo and the widely varied work that has defined his solo career, it seems uncharacteristically bold for Phillips to claim that Little Moon stands as his greatest musical accomplishment. As it turns out, he wasn’t running that flag far enough up the hill: Little Moon might in fact be Phillips’ Sgt. Pepper.

The album’s lead track, “Good Morning Happiness,” is a giddy Pop march that still maintains a link to the moody atmosphere that Phillips has cultivated over the years. The song perfectly tees up the infectiously powerful melodies to come; the Bowie-like propulsion of “Strangest Thing,” the childlike beauty of the title track, the jaunty street orchestra swing of “It Ain’t the Same Old Cold War Harry.” Even when Phillips dials back to the more melancholic shades of his earlier work — “Nightbirds,” “Violet,” “Buried Treasure” — there’s an underlying sense of hopefulness that shines through the lull.

“Blind Tom” is gorgeous chamber Pop, “One Morning” combines all of Phillips’ artistic gifts into a quietly anthemic affirmation of the hope embodied in planning for a better day. “Older Now” finds Phillips channeling his inner Randy Newman (“The longer you live, the softer you get/ Whether you like it or not/ You’re older now, you take your time/ Cherish what you got”), which continues as the album comes to a spectacular and surreal conclusion with the hallucinogenically jazzy “The Sun Shines on Jupiter,” a space age carnival version of “When I’m 64.” With the consistently excellent Little Moon, Grant Lee Phillips redefines his already broad creative parameters and establishes a new personal benchmark of depth and timelessness.

Four years ago, Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington wrote a handful of songs for the band’s Minutes to Midnight album, which never seemed to click with his bandmates. Bennington played the songs on an acoustic guitar for friend and Orgy/Julien-K guitarist Ryan Shuck who was completely knocked out by the material. Bennington gave the songs to Shuck and fellow Orgy/Julien-K guitarist Amir Derakh to expand into real songs and returned to his Linkin Park duties, and amidst their own busy schedules Shuck and Derakh (and the rest of Julien-K) fleshed out Bennington’s skeletal songs into epic Rock anthems. Everyone concerned was so excited by the results that they elected to join forces in a separate side project, and thus was born Dead By Sunrise.

On their debut, Out of Ashes, Dead by Sunrise avoids direct references to any of their recent or distant pasts by flinging their songs in a dozen different but not disparate directions. Still in all, it’s fascinating to hear Bennington channel his inner Robin Zander on “Crawl Back In” while the rest of DBR tribute Cheap Trick and Nirvana simultaneously, counterpointed by the ’80s synth-driven New Wave pulse of “Too Late” and the Mr. Mister Pop power balladry of “Let Down” and the arena-sized lilt of “Give Me Your Name.”

Pop Metal raises a pumped fist in “My Suffering,” Punk gets the treatment in “Condemned” and Rock doesn’t come much more anthemic than “Fire.” Dead by Sunrise is not merely greater than the sum of its parts — it’s greater than the sums that contributed the parts.